Do Puppy Classes Cause Learning Deficits?
Updated: Oct 29
Should young puppies learn obedience behaviors? The science says no!
Originally published in slightly different form on February 9, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
“Nature is never wrong.”—Jean Jacques Rousseau
“Genies don’t grant just two wishes. Nobody talks about the Two Musketeers. And you never hear anybody say, ‘Second time’s the charm!’“ —Jeff Bridges (Hyundai ad) Unnecessarily Complicated
The message of the ad copy above is that all good things come in threes. This is true even in chemistry, where in order for most chemical reactions to take place there has to be a third agent, a catalyst, facilitating the process.
This series of Unified Dog Theory articles—which involves me trying to be such a catalyst—got its start after I read a blog article written by Dr. Ian Dunbar, on how “unneccessarily complicated” the thinks behavioral science techniques and terminology have become. In another, more recent article, Dr. Dunbar, who’s a tireless advocate for using positive training techniques, writes, “It’s possible to teach a dog manners, obedience, tricks and games at any time in his life. However, it’s just so easy ... to teach four- to five-week old puppies to come, sit, lie down and roll over and so, why not?”
Here’s a potential “why not.” Evolutionary biologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger write, “The neonate is ... so perfectly adapted to its environment it doesn’t have to learn anything.” They go on: “Adolescence is a period of metamorphosis—anatomical remodeling. The neonatal organism is taken apart and reconstructed into an adult ... Sucking feeding behaviors do not grow, or develop, into predatory feeding behaviors any more than the 18 feet of a caterpillar grow into the six legs of a butterfly. Instead, the animal is de-differentiated... New organs are created de novo while old ones are discarded.” And, most importantly, “Skills do not grow from the neonatal skull (the sucking skull) into an adult predatory skill. The neonatal skull is resorbed while the adult skull is being laid down.”1
In essence the Coppingers are saying that the period between birth and adolescence involves such a humongous change in the structure of the pup’s brain as to be comparable to the structural differences between a caterpillar and a butterfly (perhaps even a liver and a lung). If this is true, shouldn’t we wait to train a puppy until after his skull has totally morphed from the neonatal skull into the skull of an adult dog?
And why would you want or need to train a puppy at 4 - 5 weeks, especially since the pup is very unlikely to retain what he’s learned (once his brain goes through its neural pruning and metamorphosis, during adolescence)? And particularly if by doing so you run the risk of creating learning deficits and stunting the pup’s emotional flexibility?
The Power of Play and the “Socialization Window“
When I first started out as a dog trainer I knew lots and lots of dog owners who never took their dogs to a puppy class, and who never did any formal obedience training of any kind with their dogs. They just made it a point to play with their dogs every day. And those dogs were far better behaved, and had fewer emotional or behavioral issues than all the other dogs I knew, especially those who had been to puppy class!
This need to train a puppy right away—while ignoring the pup’s natural developmental phases—is all the more puzzling when Dunbar says, “Successful socialization is possible only during puppyhood. If you miss the socialization window, you’ve missed it for good.”
Why place such importance on only one development phase, while ignoring all the others, especially since what Dr. Dunbar says isn’t necessarily true? There is no critical window, where if you miss it “you’ve missed it for good.” Most scientists now call this period an “important” phase, not a “time-window.” Plus the most critical aspect of this period is social play.
Imagine, if you will, a puppy, whose developmental urges are geared around social play. Then imagine taking such a puppy to an obedience class. His developmental needs practically compel him to do nothing but play with the other pups. And that’s usually in alignment with the structure of most puppy classes. But then, in the middle of playing or wanting to, the puppy is pulled away from what his developmental urges are compelling him to do, and he’s asked to learn obedience behaviors, which—except for the sit—are entirely unnatural at his age. Plus the owner will only have to re-train the pup once he reaches adolescence anyway.
Some scientists are now looking into a theory of how limiting structured learning in pre-schoolers, and replacing it with more outdoor games and free play, might prevent ADHD in some cases, and perhaps even reverse it in others. (Many +R dog trainers talk jokingly about “puppy ADHD.”)
Free Play vs Rote Learning
Jaak Panksepp is the author of a number of such studies. He says that when we allow pre-schoolers to engage in free play—where they make up their own games—using their own rules (under adult supervision), natural processes of learning impulse control, fairness, and how to control aggressive feelings take place naturally.
Panksepp writes: “Our recent broad-scale brain gene expression analysis has indicated that activity of about a third of the 1,200 brain genes in frontal and posterior cortical regions are significantly modified by play within an hour of a 30 min play session.” He adds, “If such dynamic brain changes evoked by play facilitate brain growth and maturation, perhaps solidifying pro-social circuits of the brain, we must worry about anything that diminishes the progression of such developmental processes.”2
Panksepp is talking about children (although his studies were done on rats), but it seems to me that getting a puppy to settle down, stop fooling around, and pay attention at a puppy class qualifies as something that “diminishes the pro-social circuits of the brain.”
So I would suggest that by waiting until a puppy’s brain and emotions are more fully developed, and by allowing his normal development processes to take their course, and by waiting to train the older, adolescent dog through his prey drive, using biting games like fetch and tug as the primary focal point for learning, we’ll have less behavioral problems and fewer dogs that end up in shelters, while with Dunbar’s prescription, we could have more behavioral problems and more doggies stuck behind bars.
I see another problem, which is that along with the huge proliferation of puppy obedience classes (many people are now taking their dogs to the local mall for puppy classes) there comes a very real disintegration of the quality and qualifications of trainers or class moderators.
Jez Rose wrote in his blog at DogStarDaily.com recently about a lady with a 8-week old Rhodesian Ridgeback with fear aggression. The owner was told to use an electric shock collar. And the person who gave out this horrific advice was the trainer in that dog’s puppy class!
Doesn’t lowering the “legal age” for dog training deeper and deeper into puppyhood (4 - 5 weeks!), guarantee that more idiots like the one Jez Rose mentions will be giving out horrific puppy training advice at the local mall? I don’t think Dunbar or anybody else wants that to happen, particularly if it’s going to start happening on a more regular basis. And the chances are, that by suggesting puppies should be trained as early as 4 - 5 weeks, we may already be walking down that road.
It seems to me that if we’re to have a fully viable, Unified Dog Theory—one that ultimately benefits all dogs, owners, and trainers—some of these questions need to be raised, carefully looked at, and calmly debated.
So let’s open a dialogue. Let’s look at all the science, particularly the most recent breakthroughs, from all disciplines. And let’s remember that all good things come in threes: the best and most productive amalgam of pack leader, behavioral science, and drive training techniques may very well be what most, if not all of us, are looking for.
And, as Rousseau says, nature is never wrong, which means that every puppy is born perfect. We’re the ones who screw things up.
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Footnotes: 1) Coppinger, R and Coppinger, L, “Biologic bases of behavior of domestic dogs,” Readings in Companion Animal Behavior, Voith, VL and Borchelt, PL, eds., Veterinary Learning Systems Co, Inc, New Jersey, 1996.
2) Kroes, Burgdorf Panksepp and Moskal, 2006, “Unpublished observations from Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics,” Northwestern University.